Seasons, as self-evident as the point may be, heavily accent the experiences and encounters that can take place between people and the spaces in which they occur, not to mention the feelings and emotions that can arise. More superficial but no less important is how seasons more immediately impact one’s physical movement (or lack thereof), and, yes, the clothing that one wears. Given that for South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo place/space is so important in literally giving shape to his films, it goes without saying that seasons play an equally fundamental role in theme.
Particularly striking in Hong’s filmography is the season of winter, which he sometimes pairs by shooting in black-and-white, all the better to emphasise the contrasting lightness of snow and heaviness of emotions of his characters. Winter in Hong’s cinema either constitutes the entire film’s climatic setting—as in Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), Woman is the Future of Man (2004), Tale of Cinema (2005), Oki’s Movie (2010), The Day He Arrives (2011), and The Day After (2017)—or mark significant scenes—the closing moments of Right Now, Wrong Then (2016) quickly come to mind. In this context, Hotel by the River may be Hong’s most winter film yet, in terms of not only setting and therefore imagery but also what transpires in the film and the event with which it concludes. While its last two scenes finally make explicit the melancholic tone that imperceptibly runs throughout, Hotel by the River is on the whole one of Hong’s more relaxed works while still addressing the weighty philosophical issue of the transience of things and the mental process of coming to terms with it, sculpted precisely in the chill and snow.
The film’s opening credits, which are read in voiceover by Hong himself, even include the dates of the shooting: late January to early February 2018. These months mean thick snow and a frozen Han River by which Heimat Hotel, the film’s primary setting, is located. Thick black coats against nearly blinding whiteness of snowy landscape are the order of the day, made literal since the film takes place in the span of one day.
The film centers on two current hotel guests who have made the establishment a temporary home and/or refuge, in keeping with the winter setting and the idea of hibernation: aging poet Yeong-hwan (Ki Joo-bong), who admits to feeling that he is reaching his life’s end, and Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee), who has recently broken off a toxic relationship. The first shot, in fact, casually establishes their dual centrality as well as the film’s play with the visual dynamic of (the warmth of) interiors and (the chill of) exteriors. As Yeong-hwan starts his day in his hotel room, he looks out beyond his balcony and sees a woman, Ah-reum, her back to him, walking/standing in the fullness of snow as morning creeps on. The possibility of encounter and/or emotional link thus also characterises this opening shot.
The possibility of encounter and/or emotional link continues with the next sequence revealing that Yeong-hwan and Ah-reum occupy rooms on the same floor. This point is succinctly expressed in two simple shots that are a variation of the film’s first sequence. The first shot is of Yeong-hwan venturing out of his hotel room and then looking intently at someone/ something. The next shot reveals the focus of his attention: Ah-reum in profile not looking back at him but rather at the snowy landscape through a window towards the left side of the frame, seemingly lost in thought. She is so completely caught up in her thoughts that she is unaware of Yeong-hwan’s gaze upon her and after a moment turns her back to the camera and proceeds to walk to her own hotel room. In light of the film’s concluding shots, this brief moment of connection between Yeong-hwan and Ah-reum (if only on the former’s part) acquires a deep resonance in that it actually places them on opposite sides of the spectrum. If Yeong-hwan holes himself up in the hotel in anticipation of his death, Ah-reum does so to prime herself for a rebirth. Not coincidentally, Ah-reum spends an inordinate amount of time in the film sleeping and/or simply lying in bed, even when she her close friend Yeon-joo (Song Sun-mi) drops by. Hibernation, then, is also made literal here.
Paralleling the arrival of Ah-reum’s friend Yeon-joo are Yeong-hwan’s two sons Kyeong-soo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and Byeong-soo (Yoo Joon-sang) paying him a visit. Given this setup, one would expect round after round of chance encounters between these two parties. On the one hand, all of the characters do tread on the same ground at similar times, such as the hotel restaurant and café, another nearby restaurant, and the snow-filled outdoors. On the other hand, the film does not fully indulge such expectations, preferring instead to invite comparisons and contrasts between female friendship and closeness and male/father-son bonds and vulnerability by cutting between Ah-reum and her friend and Yeong-hwan and his sons throughout the day. Notably, only Yeong-hwan is given the opportunity to cross paths with Ah-reum and Yeon-joo, first outdoors in the snow bathed in daylight and then indoors at a restaurant at night.
But as the scenes between these two groups accumulate, undeniable is the sisterly warmth and ease with which Ah-reum and Yeon-joo hang out as opposed to the slightly tense, sometimes (laughingly) awkward, but still very touching camaraderie between Yeong-hwan, Kyeong-soo, and Byeong-soo. An example of their rapport is when Yeong-hwan gifts each of his sons a stuffed animal and then snaps a photo of them holding their gifts. In truth, the parts of the film devoted to these three men in each other’s company and exchanging and laying bare their feelings, thoughts, and/or memories hold the most interest. Though, perhaps, they would not hold the same interest if not for the contrast presented by Ah-reum and Yeon-joo.
The basic principle of simultaneity and contrast that characterises the film’s form and content culminates with the last scenes, quietly affective in their honesty and simplicity.
Hotel by the River was shown on November 11 and 13 at AFI FEST.